To be a Black, LGBTQ artist in 21st century America must be many things: complicated, textured, evolving, challenging, rich.
For the summer exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts, jaamil olawale kosoko, Wexner artist residency award recipient, enlisted artists to call upon Black feminist knowledge to create installations examining such lives.
The exhibit, “Portal For(e) the Ephemeral Passage,” continues through Aug. 14 at the Ohio State University avant-garde art center. Works by kosoko, nora chipaumire,Jennifer Harge, Devin Drake, Dana Michel, Tracy Maurice, Jasmine Murrell, and Keioui Keijaun Thomas occupy all the center’s galleries.
The installations — a mix of videos, sculptures, drawings and more — are not readily discernible, but present layers of often mysterious and enigmatic images and symbols. Happily, each installation offers reading materials and QR codes where more context and background information about the artists and their works can be found.
In her video opera “Nehanda,” nora chipaumire revisits the British colonization of her homeland, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, with video portraits of singers embodying the Shona spirit called upon by those resisting colonizers of central Africa. Following a half-hour of arias, the opera runs for nearly four hours in a setting of large, sculptural speakers and amplifiers. Wooden chairs are provided for visitors who may wander in and out or stay for however long they choose.
In a film and multi-media installation with robot-like creatures made of bags and sculptures involving hundreds of black plastic gloves, Keioui Keijaun Thomasimagines a post-apocalyptic world of Black trans and queer people.
Dana Michel and Tracy Maurice film each other, commenting on issues of bodies and relationships in their video, “Lay them all down,” created for the 2020 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
In the installation “The Fly/Drown Fables,” Jennifer Harge and Devin Drake offer a carpeted living room complete with chairs, lamps, tables and an old television, simultaneously evoking Black living spaces and ancestral themes. On the wall, a plaque reads: “Use the fascia around your wingspan to practice lifting your collapsed heart.”
The exhibit’s most impressive piece is Jasmine Murrell’s sculpture “Immortal Uterus #21,” recalling Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cells were collected without her consent and used for clinical testing and vaccine development. The huge piece, built from wire, black VHS film and light gel, extends to the ceiling almost like a living creature. And visitors can walk inside and under it.
In “Syllabus for Black Love,” kosoko invites viewers (without their shoes) into a carpeted space with large screens that show ocean landscapes and lovers on a rocky hillside, accompanied by music, nature sounds and spoken narrative that begins “Black love is….”
At the front of the room is an altar-like installation with artifacts from deceased friends and family of the artist — photos, dolls, glasses, shoes and more. And outside is a small library with books by writers including Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks, James Baldwin, Hanif Abdurraqib, Zora Neale Hurston and others, all who, writes kosoko, “give perspectives for cultivating love, specifically Black love.”
Each installation is personal and brave. Many of these works address the hardships of Black life, particularly gay Black life, and many hint at a mystical African heritage. Viewers should plan to spend some time with one, several or all of these works in order to fully absorb the artist’s intent.
In the curator’s notes, kosoko is rather cryptic but includes this telling remark: “I have been drawn closer to artists who have inspired my thinking and exploration into the shapeshifting principles that Black queer people employ to survive and heal.”
At a glance
“Portal For(e) the Ephemeral Passage” continues through Aug. 14, at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Admission is free. Call 614-292-3535 or visit www.wexarts.org.